To Veil or Not to Veil—That is a Complex Question

by Sussan Tahmasebi

Over the last two years, countless trade and diplomatic delegations have traveled to Iran to kick off economic cooperation in diverse sectors from the auto industry and the gas and oil sector to agriculture. In fact, Iran is embarking on trade and economic agreements at an unprecedented rate, including with many European countries, but also with China, Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia and even some Latin American and Persian Gulf countries.

Two weeks ago, however, when a Swedish political and trade delegation visited Iran, it faced an avalanche of criticism. When pictures of the women in the delegation donning headscarves appeared in various media, the delegation and the Swedish government came under attack for appearing to appease the Iranian government on its policy of compulsory veiling, failing to take a stand for Iranian women and their right to choose their own dress, and maintaining contradictory policies in support of women at home and abroad. Many claimed that the female delegates should have refused to travel to Iran if it required wearing a headscarf. Others on social media were more radical in their demands, expecting the female delegation to condemn the practice, refuse to wear the headscarf, or subversively remove the headscarf while in the country.

The issue of compulsory veiling and unveiling has been a politically and emotionally charged issue in Iran for close to a century ever since Reza Shah, the founding monarch of the Pahlavi dynasty, forcefully “emancipated” women from the veil, in an effort to “modernize” Iran. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Reza Shah, later relaxed the law. During the reign of the second Pahlavi ruler, women were no longer required by law to uncover, but the practice of veiling was viewed largely by the political elite as a sign of backwardness. In the lead up the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the veil became a sign of resistance for female political objectors who identified themselves with political Islam.

Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, the policy was reversed and veiling for women became mandatory by law. Over the years the state and especially hardliners have claimed that the veiling of women represents the Islamic nature of the country and should be promoted as a sign of chastity and purity of not only women, but Iran as a whole. To this day the issue remains controversial and highly politicized, with ultra conservatives pushing for more rigorous and harsher enforcement of veiling and an increasingly vocal sector of Iranians and non-Iranians objecting to the policy. In fact, the issue is so charged that it is difficult to talk about veiling in more complex and nuanced ways, without being attacked by those on both sides of the debate.

Reaching Out to Iranian Women

As a women’s rights activist and a feminist I too am opposed to any form of compulsory veiling or control of women’s dress or bodies. Everyone should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies and dress, including Iranian women and non-Iranians who visit Iran. Female politicians choosing to go to Iran should object to the practice of compulsory veiling and if they are uncomfortable about it they should bow out of the mission. But more sensational and controversial objections by diplomats should be tied directly to the end result. The question that should be asked is this: will harsh condemnation of compulsory veiling by diplomats and governments who want to politically and economically engage with Iran benefit Iranian women and end the practice?

Many, myself included, believe that this type of approach would cause diplomatic strife and add to the controversy and sensationalism that surrounds the issue, which may backfire, emboldening conservatives to pressure women further. By claiming that the demand for ending compulsory veiling is a Western-imposed demand, they would be able to push for harsher treatment of women who do not observe a strict dress code as well as harsher treatment of women on other rights issues while also limiting international cooperation, especially on issues of rights. This would isolate Iran further and hamper the efforts of moderates trying to slowly open up the country and rebuild Iran’s economy.

In fact, all protests and actions should be weighed against the potential benefits to women. Reducing the competing priorities of Iranian women to a single issue, as in the recent case of the Swedish delegation, is not only a mistake but a disservice to those working on these issues and also those living in Iran. Just like women everywhere, Iranian women have many aspirations for themselves and their country. A few years ago, for instance, they went to the polls to vote in a president who promised to end Iran’s isolation and the sanctions that had crippled the Iranian economy.

Iranian activists who welcome trade delegations as a signal of an end to Iran’s isolation and the promise of economic improvements approach current developments with trepidation. They wonder if these trade agreements will result in the international community turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and Iranian aspirations for a more democratic society. What will happen if Western governments that are more supportive of human rights, refuse to engage with the Iranian government? What will happen if all the trade agreements are with countries such as China and Russia, who not only will not engage with Iran on human rights, but will actively support political crackdowns? How can Iranians ensure that engagement with Europe is not limited to trade alone?

Women as Diplomats

Along these lines, during their visit to Iran, the Swedish delegation met with Shahindokht Mowlaverdi, Iran’s vice president for women’s affairs. Mowlaverdi, an expert on international law, has a long history of working in Iran’s civil society sector and has a reputation as a strong advocate for women. The Swedish delegation, which boasts of its feminist approach to foreign policy, signed a cooperative agreement with Iran on women’s issues. The positive possibilities of such cooperation and the details of it were lost in the cacophony created around the headscarf issue. If the Swedish delegation had been all male, however, the meeting with the VP on women’s affairs may have never taken place much less resulted in bilateral cooperation on women’s issues.

In fact, if female politicians don’t mind wearing the hijab on their trips to Iran, they can bring a much-needed gendered and even feminist perspective to diplomatic and trade discussions. After all, a feminist foreign policy should not be limited to protest alone, but should also embrace and support those like Mowlaverdi, who are working under extremely difficult circumstances to create positive change for women.

For example, they can push the Iranian government and also their own private sector to adopt fair employment practices in Iran and hire from the incredibly talented and well-educated workforce of Iranian women as well as Iranian minorities, both suffering from disproportionate unemployment rates. Female diplomats can insist that Western companies adopt policies that ensure equal pay for equal work and prohibit sexual harassment in the workforce. In negotiating trade agreements, the female diplomats can also insist on the establishment of social responsibility and social investment programs, providing support to independent civil society, but especially for women’s groups and programs. Governments like Sweden are right to sign cooperative agreements with Iran on women’s issues, but they should not silo women’s issues from trade issues. Trade and economic engagement present unique opportunities for improving the lives of Iranian women, increasing their workforce participation rates and their presence in decision-making roles.

The large number of women in the Swedish delegation sent a strong message to Iranians that they too should have more women in decision-making roles. Among Iranians and especially on social media the juxtaposition of a row of mostly female negotiators facing a row of exclusively male negotiators was especially interesting and worthy of discussion. It would have been difficult for a delegation of only men to send a similar message or to advocate for measures to improve living conditions for women.

Female politicians traveling to Iran who face criticism on the issue of compulsory veiling should take the opportunity to expand the conversation, to make it more complex and nuanced. They should do so not by excusing practices that take away women’s choice, or by attributing those practices to culture, but by including in the agenda a range of other issues as critical as the first, which are important to Iranian women and will certainly increase their opportunities and choices.


Sussan Tahmasebi

Sussan Tahmasebi has over 20 years of experience working to strengthen civil society and advocate for women’s rights, peace and security, in Iran, the MENA/Asia region, and internationally. Her expertise includes women’s movement-building especially in Middle East and North Africa, human and women’s rights advocacy in an Islamic context, civil society capacity-building, and addressing and preventing violent extremism and violence against women. She is currently the director of FEMENA, an organization working to promote equality, social cohesion, and peace in North Africa and West Asia. Follow her on twitter: @sussantweets


One Comment

  1. Thanks for this post. Trying to make others into copies of any particular social persona is conceited and counterproductive. Suggestions in the article are positive and help build bridges. Many of the fashions in the West are rather offensive to many modest people (even older Western women!) eg singlets, short shorts, lots of fat bare skin on visitors of all ages and sexes) where covering up does not hurt anyone willing to be courteous to the host country.
    I am glad that Iran is being treated by many countries as a sovereign proud nation should be.

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